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Soft Skills: Listening for Better Leadership

Soft Skills: Listening for Better Leadership

What's one sure way to become a better leader and improve the morale of your staff? Become a better listener

Listening well may help you discover new markets or find new ways to innovate, but you must first listen well to your staff

The ability to listen well is a crucial soft skill, especially for a leader. It's easy to realize its absence in others but perhaps not as easy when it comes to ourselves. Consider the following two scenarios for insight into your own opinion on the subject.

Scenario 1: You've gone into your boss's office hoping to talk about something that's troubling you. When you begin to speak, your boss looks toward his BlackBerry, picks it up, then starts to compose a message. You slow your talking, not sure if he's hearing anything you're saying until he motions you to continue. When he's done e-mailing he jerks his chin up a few times in a "let's get on with this" move and before you can finish talking, cuts you off by going into his advice mode. Instead of hearing what you have to say, he gives you a long speech about all the things you need to do to fix the situation, which he gets wrong because he has not understood the situation. Then he tells you abruptly he has another appointment.

Scenario 2: You've been worried about some staff issues. Your boss is just back from out-of-town meetings and then vacation (you haven't seen each other for a while), and he has asked to meet with you to catch up and see how things are going. When you begin to talk, he notices almost immediately that something is troubling you, and says, "Why don't you get the door?" Shortly after you begin speaking, his BlackBerry buzzes. "Excuse me," he says, then puts it into silent mode. He urges you to go on, and while you speak, he leans forward slightly, quietly nodding at times, encouraging you to continue at others. By the time you get to the end of your story, you realize you now know how to solve the problem. You tell him so, and he smiles. After you catch up on some other work details, you leave his office and go back to yours to start correcting your problem.

You've likely experienced some version of each scenario. What was the effect each had on your motivation? Your morale? The sense of your value to the company? Your desire to seek out new solutions?

In the business best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, listening is one of Stephen Covey's crucial seven habits. He writes, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." It's no coincidence that many leading companies, especially leading innovators, are noted for their ability to listen to customers (see IBM and Apple for two examples). Prominent figures do as well. Former Chrysler Corporation CEO Lee Iacocca is credited with saying, "Businesspeople need to listen at least as much as they talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions." Listening well may help you discover new markets or find new ways to innovate, but you must first listen well to your staff. Ineffective listening leaves staff feeling unappreciated, and research shows it can result in low morale, absenteeism, turnover and other ill effects. On the other hand, improving one's ability to listen can improve your leadership skills and, in turn, the skills of those you lead.

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